The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion American colleges should stop recklessly sending students to Iran

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American graduate student at Princeton University, is shown with his wife, Hua Qu, and their son in an undated family photo. (Princeton University via Associated Press)
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Matt Trevithick spent 41 days in Iran’s Evin prison after completing an intensive immersion program at Tehran University. He is the co-founder of several companies, including a Middle East-based monitoring and evaluation firm, and author of “An Undesirable Element.”

An American student, Xiyue Wang, who was in Tehran studying a dynasty that ended nearly a century ago, has been detained and sentenced to jail in Iran, likely without convincing proof. Universities in the United States must ban sending students to Iran until it demonstrates a willingness to stop turning them into geopolitical pawns. Based on my experiences, and in light of the long list of Westerners detained by the Iranian government in recent decades, it is reckless for American universities to ignore the real threat that students face when they travel to Iran.

This is a painful position to for me to promote. Such exchanges have had a transformative effect on my life. I was introduced to the Middle East through the Beirut Exchange. I worked for four years at the American University of Afghanistan, having the honor of representing America’s envied higher education system while doing my part to find more effective tools for U.S. foreign policy through research and writing. I wrote a short book detailing the life of a little-known Persian poet from Afghanistan whose studies in the United States in the 1970s led to a groundbreaking PhD documenting the previously unknown influence of Rumi on Walt Whitman. I am a member of the annual Dartmouth Conference, established in the 1960s so that prominent civilians in Russia and the United States could work together to avoid war; all its participants readily agree that student exchanges must continue, a position the institution has hewed to even at times when the Washington consensus considered the Soviet Union a rough approximation of the Death Star.

But I, too, became caught up in geopolitical forces when I was studying Farsi at Tehran University. I was grabbed off the street without reason or apology and ended up spending 41 days in Evin prison.

Exchanges and related programs represent an important component of relations between countries, even those that can’t find much to agree on. At one end of the spectrum, such initiatives model polite behavior between nations looking to impart a positive image, and at the other, they assist with the generation of informed and creative approaches to regional policy, authored by folks who have actually been there. In either case, they are invaluable for building trust in the community of nations.

As a result, most governments have the decency to decouple politics from young foreign students researching obscure topics in dusty libraries.

But this is not true in Iran, where a hostile approach to all things America is the bedrock of Iranian policy. That suspicion occasionally bleeds into a skepticism of our Western allies; European students I met in Tehran spoke with muted voices about their purposefully mundane studies, which consisted of muted discussions with academics who knew far more than they would ever publish. As for me, simply walking up and down Tehran’s main thoroughfare, Vali Asr, most days after classes with a Lonely Planet guide in hand, proved strange to the same government that was admitting American tourists in unprecedented numbers, and I wound up in solitary confinement as a result.

Iran has never shown that these exchanges can be done in good faith without extreme risk to students and researchers. Xiyue Wang’s sentencing is not an outlier. After I was released, the outpouring of support from academics and students from around the world — as well as requests to pass on any information on loved ones who had gone missing in Tehran — was overwhelming, with more than a few darkly joking about my admission to Evin “University,” given its reputation for targeting academics. There are almost certainly more foreigners in these jails than the Western public is aware of. I personally know at least two Americans and several more Europeans who were detained and released without fanfare, who stay quiet because they continue to work on regional issues. And knowing firsthand the unique pain that detention causes family members, I think such exchanges with Iran are something that should give American academia pause.

But even as American students should stop going to Iran, the U.S. government should keep the door open to foreign students, including Iranians.

Simply put, Iranian students thrive on American campuses. Maryam Mirzakhani, who was born in Tehran and sadly died from illness last week in the United States, redefined the poetry of mathematics at Harvard and Stanford and received the Fields Medal for her work — the first woman in history to be given the award. Jasmin Moghbeli, elegantly profiled this month in the New Yorker, is an Iranian American who studied at MIT, flew 150 combat missions in Afghanistan as a Marine and is now a member of NASA’s newest class of astronauts. Iranian Americans are, depending on whom you ask, leading or in the running for the most highly educated minority group in the United States.

And when they’re admitted to study here, it’s likely they will come away with the understanding that the kind of cultural conformity Iran dictates back home is self-defeating, a root cause of violence, and, as Iran needs no reminder of, very bad for business.

We must stay true to our deepest American values while trying to minimize the risk inherent in engaging with today’s world. With this open-minded realism, the United States doesn’t need to slam the door shut to students completely. But until Iran can ensure that Western academics can study and better understand the fascinating Persian world in peace, it’s best that American universities keep their distance.